HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Covid Program Leaves Uninsured With Bills

The federal program to pay for Covid-19 medical services for the uninsured is only covering a fraction of the cost for millions who contract the virus but lack coverage, leaving Americans saddled with debt and hospitals with mounting bills.

The government designed the program to pay hospitals, laboratories, and doctors who care for the uninsured, instead of providing insurance of some kind to those who lack it, hospital executives and industry observers said.

More than a third of the cost of coronavirus tests or care provided to the uninsured this year has gone uncompensated by the government, hospital groups said. Some of the millions of dollars in unpaid bills have fallen on patients, consumer advocates said.

“In a sense the government is claiming you have insurance by saying they’ll pay for it,” said Craig Antico, founder of RIP Medical Debt, a charity that helps people pay old medical bills. “That’s not how it works when they pay on the back end. People are still getting bills they can’t pay.”

With little sign that Congress will strike a deal before November to inject the program with new funds or overhaul it, those without insurance remain vulnerable to the high cost of care if they contract Covid-19. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

Happening on the Hill

Barrett Confirmation Escalates Into Crossfire on Health Care: Democrats attacked the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett as a move to kill the Affordable Care Act in the midst of a pandemic and sharply shift the court to the right at a Senate hearing that’s all but certain to lead to her confirmation just days before the election.

Beginning four days of statements and questioning, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee clashed over the propriety of President Donald Trump’s nomination of Barrett just 38 days before Election Day and the impact she would have on a court that would have a 6-3 conservative majority.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the committee, heralded Barrett, a 48-year-old appellate court judge, as a “gifted” academic and protege of the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Barrett, a mother of seven and devout Catholic, sat in the hearing room surrounded by family members yesterday. She wore a mask, as did lawmakers, staff and other attendees. Read more from Laura Litvan and Greg Stohr.

Democrats will get their first crack at questioning Barrett today during her confirmation hearing, where they plan to focus on how she might move the court in a more conservative direction on issues such as health care and abortion. Litvan and Stohr have more.

Related: It’s Barrett’s Call Which Cases She’d Sit Out: Recusal Explained

Pelosi Voices Concerns About U.K.’s Vaccine Approval Process: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the U.K’s vaccine protocols may not be up to the “stringent” standards of the U.S. and that Prime Minister Boris Johnson may rush the process, Megan Howard and Erik Wasson report. “My concern is that the U.K.’s system for that kind of judgment is not on par with ours in the United States,” Pelosi said during a news conference. “So if Boris Johnson decides he is going to approve a drug and this president embraces that, that’s a concern that I have.”

Senators Call for Probe Into White House Influence on FDA, CDC: Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Patty Murray (Wash.) and Gary Peters (Mich.) requested an investigation into the Trump administration’s political influence over the Covid-19 responses by the Food and Drug Administration and Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, Maria Monteros reports. The letter to the Government Accountability Office came following reports that the Trump administration’s meddling resulted in public confusion and distrust on health information that could help contain the virus.

Republicans Seek Review of Contact Tracing Apps: House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Reps. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) and Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) in a letter to GAO chief Gene Dodaro requested GAO assess Covid-19 contact tracing apps. “Not much is known about the challenges various states may be facing in implementing the use of these technologies,” the lawmakers wrote. “Challenges that may reduce the effectiveness of these technologies include low adoption rates, testing delays, privacy concerns, and interoperability of the apps.”

The Coronavirus Pandemic

J&J Confirms Covid-19 Vaccine Trial Paused: Johnson & Johnson said its Covid-19 vaccine study has been temporarily halted due to an unexplained illness in a trial participant. Jake Sargent, a spokesman for the company, confirmed an earlier report by health-care news provider STAT that the study was paused. Earlier this month, Johnson & Johnson joined the short list of vaccine makers that have moved an experimental coronavirus shot into late-stage human studies in the U.S. The company has since begun dosing up to 60,000 volunteers, marking the first big trial of an Covid-19 inoculation that may work after just one shot. Read more from Jeff Sutherland and Riley Griffin.

U.S. Aims to Get 1 Million Doses of Covid Antibody Before 2021: The U.S. has already secured hundreds of thousands of doses of experimental antibody treatments for Covid-19 in anticipation of regulators authorizing their emergency use, federal health officials said on Friday. The government expects to have 1 million doses of the so-called monoclonal antibody treatments on hand before year-end.

The treatments have come into the spotlight after Trump received one such experimental therapy for his case of Covid-19. Eli Lilly and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have asked the FDA for emergency-use authorizations for their antibody therapies but haven’t yet received clearance. Trump has since repeatedly promised to hasten their approval, widen access and provide them to Americans for free. Read more from Riley Griffin and Jeannie Baumann.

An FDA authorization of an experimental antibody treatment administered to Trump will likely have to clear a higher bar than the one used for the now-withdrawn hydroxychlorquine, the agency’s longtime drug chief said. “People were concerned about hydroxychloroquine and the authorization for that, but that was for very sick patients when nothing else was available. We’re in a very different situation now,” Janet Woodcock said yesterday at the Milken Institute’s Global Conference. Jeannie Baumann has more.

AstraZeneca’s Covid Antibody Drug Heads Into Advanced Trials: AstraZeneca started late-stage trials for an antibody medicine against Covid-19 with a large investment from the U.S., after Trump credited a similar therapy with aiding his recovery. Two trials for more than 6,000 people are starting in the next few weeks looking at prevention, with plans for a further 4,000 adults to test the antibody medicine as a treatment, Astra said in a statement. The drug will be assessed for its ability to avoid infections for as much as a year in some people and as a pre-emptive medicine once patients have been exposed to the virus in others. Read more from Marthe Fourcade and Suzi Ring.

Inhaled Vaccines Aim to Fight Coronavirus at Its Point of Attack: The Covid-19 vaccines closest to the finish line are designed to be injected into the arm. Researchers are looking at whether they can get better protection from inoculations that fight the virus at its point of attack — the nose and mouth. Most vaccines in human testing require two shots for effectiveness, and developers still aren’t even sure if they’ll prevent infections. Scientists are hoping to generate superior immune responses with inhaled vaccines that directly target the airway cells the virus invades. Read more from James Paton.

Home-Made Covid Vaccine Appeared to Work, but Questions Remained: Around the world, dozens of Covid-19 vaccines are in human clinical trials involving tens of thousands of people. While vaccines typically take years to develop, U.S. scientists are racing to produce one in months through Operation Warp Speed. But Josiah Zayner, a one-time NASA researcher who left the scientific establishment in favor of engaging in do-it-yourself experiments, bet that by working outside regulatory structures, he could test a vaccine even more quickly and certainly more cheaply by giving it to himself. Instead, Zayner discovered, testing a vaccine is far more complicated than he had imagined. Even though his experiment yielded a promising result, Zayner found too many unanswered questions to say that it worked. Read more from Kristen V Brown.

McKesson to Send Vaccine Needle, PPE Kits to Health Workers:McKesson will assemble and ship kits of needles, syringes, and personal protective equipment to accompany Covid-19 vaccines under a $568 million contract with the Department of Health and Human Services. Health-care workers will use the kits to “administer a vaccine as part of a national vaccination campaign” by the federal government to ease the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the contract. Read more from Shira Stein.

More Headlines:

Covid Struck Nevada Man Twice, and Second Time Was Far Worse

Rapid Covid Test Push Wavers on Nursing Home False Positives

Uncertified Labs Ordered to Stop Covid-19 Testing, CMS Says

Coronavirus May Stay for Weeks on Banknotes and Touchscreens

Covid Struck Nevada Man Twice, and Second Time Was Worse

What Else to Know

People Without Subsidies Leaving Obamacare Market, HHS Says: People who make too much money to get Obamacare subsidies continue to leave the individual market, the Trump administration reported Friday. From 2016 to 2019, unsubsidized enrollment in Affordable Care Act-compliant individual plans dropped by 2.8 million people or 45%, the Department of Health and Human Services said. A large share of people enrolled in ACA plans are low- to middle-income people who benefit from subsidies, and the number of people who receive subsidies dropped far less than the number who didn’t get the subsidies. Read more from Sara Hansard.

Fauci Says He Was Taken Out of Context in Trump Campaign Ad: Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, says he was taken out of context in a new campaign advertisement that praises President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. “The comments attributed to me without my permission in the GOP campaign ad were taken out of context from a broad statement I made months ago about the efforts of federal public health officials,” Fauci said in a statement.

The ad includes a brief clip of Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, saying, “I can’t imagine that anybody could be doing more.” Fauci’s comment was made during an interview in March with Fox News. The date of his remarks is not noted in the ad. Read more from Teaganne Finn.

More Headlines:

Mallinckrodt Bankruptcy Would End Opioid Claims, Wipe Out Shares

Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca Named in Suit for HHS Drug Discounts

Lawsuit Aims to Ban Menthols, Big Tobacco Bait for Black Smokers

To contact the reporters on this story: Giuseppe Macri in Washington at gmacri@bgov.com; Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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